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Growing wave of unaccompanied minors among Ukrainians fleeing to Canada


"Volunteer groups, child welfare agencies say no system in place to track teens once they arrive.

Early on the morning of Feb. 24, 16-year-old Denys was jolted awake by the rumble of Ukrainian tanks racing down a nearby highway to head off the Russian invasion of his country.

Within days, the enemy had broken through and entered the teen's hometown of Bucha, the Kyiv region community that would soon become synonymous with the brutality of the occupiers.

"They were shooting people, they were killing just families who wanted to evacuate," Denys said. "If they didn't like them they would just shoot them."

Denys, his parents, 21-year-old brother, grandmother, aunt and 19-year-old cousin crammed into the family's small car and escaped just in time, making the tense 18-hour journey to stay with relatives in Ukraine's central Khmelnytskyi region, about 300 kilometres to the west. They remained there until May, returning home only after the Russians had been pushed out by Ukrainian forces.

Even with the invaders gone, the constant threat of rocket attacks loomed and life back in Bucha was uneasy. School, which had been going well for the sociable teenager, had moved online because of the war.

One day, a friend told Denys she was planning to apply for a special visa to escape to Canada. She urged him to do the same, pointing him to a Facebook group called Canada – Host Ukrainians. Intrigued, Denys posted a message to see what would happen.

"And then Sarah found me," he said.


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A serious gap

According to volunteer groups and other agencies that have been scrambling to help resettle Ukrainians arriving under the federal government's Canada-Ukraine authorization for emergency travel (CUAET) program, Denys is one of potentially hundreds of teenagers who have arrived in this country alone.

There's very little in the way of post-arrival tracking, however, so Canadian authorities have no idea where they've all ended up. In an email to CBC, the volunteer administrators behind Canada – Host Ukrainians identified that as a serious gap.

They are all scattered. We get calls regularly about them, but we don't know where all of them are.- Liz Okai, Child Welfare Immigration Centre of Excellence

"From all our discussions with various government agencies and non-profits, it appears that the idea that unaccompanied minors would be coming to Canada was not anticipated beforehand. It's as though there's a disconnect between the issuing of the visas and the realization that these minors would then arrive and need help," they wrote.

The Facebook group, with more than 160,000 members, is the largest of its kind in Canada, but not the only one. Administrators say they've seen "well over" 100 unaccompanied minors pass through the group, and have directly intervened to help resettle more than 50 of those."

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Most are 16 or 17, but some of the teens who have arrived alone are as young as 15.

"Despite our awareness being limited by cases seen within our group, the volumes we've dealt with are an indicator that the scope of the issue is quite large," the volunteers wrote.

Convincing his parents

Denys's case is among their success stories. First, the 16-year-old had to convince his parents to let him travel alone to live with a stranger more than 8,000 kilometres away.

"They were like, 'No, you're not going anywhere," Denys said.

He'd been busily gathering the documents he needed to obtain the CUAET visa, which allows Ukrainians and their dependents to live, work and study as temporary residents of Canada for up to three years.

The Facebook group arranged a video call to introduce Sarah to Denys's father. A lawyer and translator were also on the call.

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